Sunday, May 7, 2017

Pulitzer Project: The Optimist's Daughter

I have never cared much for Eudora Welty's writing. The Optimist's Daughter did notthing to change my mind. I'll concede the book was readable -- I zipped through it pretty quickly -- but then it's so thin that I'm not sure it even qualifies as a novel. It's too long to be a short story, though, so I guess the publisher figured it could stand on its own.

Of course, considering my antipathy toward Welty, maybe brevity was a good thing. Welty was a Southern writer, her novels and short stories are all set in the deep South, and I've never been able to understand why so many critics loved her work. To me it smacks of a bizarre type of elitism: nonSoutherners gushing over a regional writer more because they're blown away by the fact someone from Mississippi is actually literate than by a true assessment of that writer's talent or skills. You know, it's like that old joke about a dancing bear: the wonderful thing isn't so much that the bear dances really well, it's that it can dance at all. In any case, over the years, various friends and acquaintances have recommended Welty's work, and over those same years I've looked at that work, muttered "This really sucks," and walked away. I always had the feeling people were reading a lot more into her work than was actually there. To me it seemed like she was trying to channel William Faulkner and failing.

The Optimist's Daughter was no exception. The book got Welty the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1973 so obviously the prize committee liked it, although as usual I'm wondering why. To me it reads a lot like a first draft and not a final product.

The book has a pretty bare bones plot: the primary character is a woman originally from a small town in Mississippi who has been living in Chicago for many years. Her father, a retired judge, phones her and something about the conversation bothers her enough that she flies down from Chicago to go with him and his much younger second wife to the family doctor for a consultation regarding a vision problem her father is having. The doctor diagnoses a condition that requires surgery. For no obvious reason, this surgery leads to her father dying in the hospital. As far I could tell, the man dies from apathy. He comes through the surgery just fine, but then loses all interest in life. Doesn't want to talk, doesn't want to be read to, and isn't particularly interested in food. He becomes more and more inert and detached.

His current wife, the second wife, a flibbertigibbet (and there's a word I thought I'd never have a use for, but it fits) with all the emotional maturity and intelligence of an adolescent squirrel, finally flips out and physically attacks the old dude in his hospital bed. She claims later she was trying to drag him back into wanting to live. If that was her goal, it didn't work because he responds by dropping dead.

We then get to witness the funeral and its immediate aftermath. The daughter wants it to be closed coffin; the wife wants it open. Even worse, she's picked a casket with a vivid pink silk lining, one that matches the curtain and bedspread in the master bedroom. If Welty were a little better as a writer, that could come across as weirdly creepy, almost Faulkneresque. As it is, all it does is confirm that Fay (the widow) is definitely no class white trash. All the old family friends rally around the daughter while making pitying noises about the wife ("She's like a child"); the wife has her mother, sister, and assorted other relatives unexpectedly descend on the proceedings. Laurel (the daughter) is thoroughly startled because the wife had told her that she had no family, her mother, father, and siblings were all dead. Among her other charms, it appears that Fay is a chronic liar.

Following the funeral, the widow takes off for the weekend with her family. Under the terms of the dead guy's will, she gets the house so before she leaves she makes it clear to Laurel that she expects her to be gone by the time she gets back on Monday. Laurel goes back to the house and spends the weekend going through her parents' desks and burning every personal paper (letters from her father to her mother, letters from her grandmother to her mother, her mother's journals) she finds. Each piece of furniture she touches evokes memories, but, with one exception, apparently none of those memories are strong enough for her to want to argue with Fay about any of it. And, in the end, even the one exception is something she decides she can leave behind. When she gets on the plane to Chicago, you know she's not coming back.

So where does The Optimist's Daughter fit on the scale for the Pulitzer winners? Well, it's not terrible, but it's also not particularly good. I'd give it a 5; it qualifies as neatly mediocre. At the time it came out, Welty was in her early 60s; maybe the prize was actually more of a lifetime achievement award. After all, a few decades ago, once you hit your 60s, everyone assumed you weren't going to be around much longer. (Welty actually made it into her 90s; if it was a lifetime achievement award, she got it a little early.)

Would I recommend it other readers? Probably not. Life is too short to read bad books.

Next up on the list? The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, which amazingly enough the L'Anse Public Library actually has in its collection. I will be able to continue plugging away at the Pulitzer Project for awhile yet even though the cut-off day for Interlibrary Loan has passed. ILL goes on hiatus when it gets close to the end of the school year.

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